Whatever Works

Posted June 18, 2009 in Film

Woody Allen’s latest seems like a decade-and-a-half late defense of his relationship with Soon-Yi Previn. Except that Allen claims he wrote his script about an old crank who falls for an incredibly young beauty for Zero Mostel back in the ’70s, when the rampaging comedian was still alive and his future bride was still an orphan in South Korea.


After several years abroad churning out pedigreed B-pictures, Allen has returned to New York for his latest trifle. For now, he’s given up making films that are about anything bigger than a quirky theme and a few dozen one-liners. A septuagenarian—not that he looks much different than he did 25 years ago—the filmography of his last decade would be good enough to make the career of a younger auteur. But being Woody Allen pictures, they’re always seen through a thick lens that makes them seem either grander or more cheap.


In this, Larry David—Allen’s new Woody Allen—plays Boris Yellnikoff, a brilliant scientist (he continually reminds us) who cracked up and threw away his on-paper-perfect wife and job. Now a grump whose only friends tolerate him out of loyalty, he entertains himself by berating children, a courtesy he extends to the barely-legal runaway who wheedles him into a place to sleep. Melodie (Evan Rachel Wood) is dumb and beautiful. The dumb turns out to be more valuable: she’s literally too dense to accept Boris’ misanthropy. (She sees into his heart, she insists, even though we’re not convinced one’s even there.) But eventually Boris makes her his wife after he comes around to appreciating her blonde, Southern good looks, the cooked catfish dinners and the way she skips around the apartment in knee socks, pigtails and panties.


What does Melodie see in him? We’re not sure, and for the first thin hour, Allen isn’t interested in asking her. Instead, he turns the implausibility of their romance into the script’s reason to exist and lets the other characters mirror our disbelief. With the entrance of Melodie’s estranged mother (Patricia Clarkson), the film takes an interesting twist. (And with the entrance of father Ed Begley Jr. a few scenes later, the film’s twists seem like Allen racing to slap an ending on his ungainly charmer.) Opines Boris in the film’s tidy, off-kilter thesis: “The romantic aspirations of our youth are reduced to ‘Whatever Works.’” And for Allen, his career aspirations have done the same.


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